Silence on Tiananmen anniversary could be sign of China’s influence on Canadian community groups: critics

Important to note the contrast. While I agree, of course, that photos with local consular officials are normal, the silence appears to reflect an emerging pattern of Chinese involvement in Canadian institutions, as some of the incidents in universities indicate:

Three decades ago, days after the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square, Vancouver-based immigrant-services organization SUCCESS issued a joint statement with other community groups condemning the violence. It called on China to follow the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and engage in peaceful negotiation.

Recently, on the 30th anniversary of the massacre, the non-profit — which has a $50 million budget and become one of the largest social-service agencies in Canada, providing help with settlement, language training, employment, seniors care and housing — did nothing to mark the occasion.

Its silence did not go unnoticed.

Kenneth Tung, a former chair of SUCCESS and member of the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement, said he would like to have seen the organization tap into its roots and put out a “simple” statement urging China to allow its citizens to enjoy the freedoms we enjoy in Canada.

“In the last few years, there’s been more (human rights) violations — going backwards,” he said. “I wish the board of SUCCESS sees that too.”

Some in the community wonder if the reluctance to speak out may, at least in part, be influenced by the region’s shifting demographics and insertion of Chinese government representatives in local affairs. More than 40 per cent of the organization’s 61,000 clients are from mainland China, as opposed to Hong Kong when SUCCESS was founded in the 1970s.

The organization opened a satellite office in Beijing a few years ago and its leaders are often photographed in the company of Chinese consular officials or members of community groups that are seen as friendly to Beijing. During the annual Chinese New Year parade this year, Queenie Choo, SUCCESS’s CEO, stood alongside Chinese consul-general Tong Xiaoling.

“It has been my observation that a lot of board members of SUCCESS may be reluctant to have the organization be involved in publicly controversial political issues, especially when it relates to China,” said Tommy Tao, a retired lawyer and activist who served on the SUCCESS board in the mid-1990s.

Tao added: “It is important to be aware and vigilant that the PRC (People’s Republic of China) consulate is very skilful exerting its influence — sometimes it’s not in the best interest of the local community and sometimes it’s not in the best interest of Canada.”

Choo told the National Post there’s no question more needs to be done to stand up for global democracy. But SUCCESS is not in the business of trying to antagonize other countries, she said. “We’re here to provide services and advocate for immigrants, new Canadians, seniors and affordable housing.” When it does take a stand on an issue, it is done in a “thoughtful” manner.

Just because she and other leaders at SUCCESS are seen in the company of certain people or groups doesn’t necessarily mean they endorse their views, she said. “Am I under undue influence of PRC? I don’t think so.”

At a time when countless stories about money laundering and skyrocketing real-estate prices have raised concerns about anti-Chinese sentiment, the National Post’s exploration of China’s so-called “soft-power” influence activities overseas similarly brought up fears of stoking xenophobia.

Peter Guo, another former SUCCESS board member, said the Post’s line of inquiry could end up demonizing one cultural group and perpetuate racial dog whistles.

“The subtext is very dangerous,” he said.

But China watchers say the Chinese government’s efforts to expand its foreign influence and suppress criticism, in part by cultivating relationships with community organizations serving the Chinese diaspora, is real and those organizations need to be vigilant.

“The Chinese Communist Party sees its overseas population of Chinese emigrants and foreign residents, generally reckoned to total about 50 million people, as an asset to be marshalled in the promotion of China’s political interests,” veteran Canadian journalist Jonathan Manthorpe wrote in his book Claws of the Panda: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada.

A report posted on the website of Canada’s spy agency, CSIS, in May 2018 stated that “[Chinese President] Xi Jinping has increased the reach of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) over the lives of citizens, and is targeting the Chinese diaspora as a means of increasing international influence.”

The report cited a paper released the year before by Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. She wrote that China’s foreign influence activities had accelerated under Xi Jinping and was being carried out by the Chinese government’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council and the CCP’s United Front Work Department.

The goal of successful overseas Chinese work, she wrote, is to get the overseas community to “proactively and even better, spontaneously, engage in activities which enhance China’s foreign policy agenda.”

Chinese consulates and embassies might relay instructions to Chinese community groups and the Chinese language media or bring in high-level CCP delegations to meet with them.

But the CCP prefers to be seen to be guiding the overseas Chinese community as opposed to leading them. “Overseas Chinese leaders who co-operate in this guidance are encouraged to see their participation as a form of service, serving the Chinese Motherland, the Chinese race, and the ethnic Chinese population within the countries where they live.”

How does this play out in real life? Some say: look to Australia.

In 2017, the Chinese Australian Services Society, a Sydney-based immigrant-service agency similar to SUCCESS, raised eyebrows when it released a foreign policy paper that said Australia should reconsider its “unquestioning strategic alignment with the U.S.” and “understand Australia is capable of many important and positive roles besides ‘America’s deputy sheriff.’”

It’s inevitable, the paper went on to say, that “every nation in the region needs to pursue an effective relationship with China for sustainable prosperity in the next couple of decades.”

After the media got wind of the policy paper, the society put out a statement rejecting the implication that it had fallen under China’s influence and said the paper was a summary of the views of its constituents. The statement went on to say that the organization had been transparent in its annual operations report about its dealings with the Chinese government.

However, China expert Nick Bisley told The Australian newspaper there was a “clear effort by forces in the PRC to shape opinion in Australia to promote a more positive view of the PRC and to distance Australia from the U.S.”

The Chinese Australian Services Society had received official designation a couple years earlier as an “Overseas Chinese Service Centre” by the Chinese government’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, according to the office’s website. Qiu Yuanping, the office’s director, announced in 2014 a goal of establishing 60 such centres around the world.

For the most part, it appears the Chinese government has chosen pre-existing immigrant-service organizations to designate in these roles, says Matt Schrader, a China expert based in Washington, D.C.

Doing so, he said, gives the “party-state visibility into what’s happening in overseas Chinese communities. Through that visibility, (it gives) them a way to monitor and — where they’re able and it’s appropriate — to control what’s happening in those communities in a way that serves their interests.”

In a column earlier this year, Schrader wrote that “the United Front’s cultivation of these organizations appears to have paid dividends, if judged by their leaders’ willingness to associate themselves with CCP political slogans.”

Schrader cited the establishment of the Hua Zhu Overseas Chinese Service Centre near Toronto in 2015. It shares the same address as The Cross-Cultural Community Services Association (TCCSA), an immigrant services agency that has been around since 1973.

“The Toronto center issued a Chinese New Year’s greeting this year on behalf of PRC Toronto consul-general He Wei that listed the CCP’s 19th Party Congress as one of the PRC’s greatest accomplishments of the past year, and echoed Xi Jinping’s declaration that ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era,’” he wrote.

Emily Fung, Hua Zhu’s board secretary, told the Post in an email that the centre posted the consul-general’s greeting on its website to accommodate clients who “wish to keep in touch with the Chinese community.”

“Hua Zhu does not have any political preference to anybody or countries,” she added.

Peter Chiu, acting executive director of the TCCSA, said his organization acts as a mentor to Hua Zhu, “assisting them to plan and deliver legal and apolitical social and recreational programs for the community,” but Hua Zhu is otherwise fully independent.

SUCCESS is another community organization that received an OCSC designation in 2015, according to a Chinese government website. Pictures show that in February 2014, Qiu Yuanping met with Choo and Liu Fei, China’s then-consul-general in Vancouver, for breakfast at the Shangri-La Hotel.

But Choo says SUCCESS was only ever a “token” recipient of the OCSC designation as she felt her organization couldn’t meet the expectations that came with it. “We needed to host a lot of functions when the government delegation comes,” she said.

In an email, the Chinese consulate in Vancouver did not specifically address its relationship with SUCCESS but did note that “Chinese expatriates and emigrants living overseas are an important bridge for local peoples to better understand China.”

In order to show the country’s care towards expatriates and to promote their economic and cultural ties with China, the Chinese government has “founded various organizations and offices to manage the affairs of expatriates,” the email said. It went on to praise the community organizations built by Chinese emigrants for “enriching the social power of Canada’s multicultural society.”

Top representatives of SUCCESS have attended many functions in the company of Tong, the current Chinese consul-general, and members of pro-Beijing organizations.

In February 2018, Tong met with the SUCCESS board. She and Choo then went to a seniors’ care home managed by SUCCESS to hand out red envelopes.

Tong and Choo crossed paths again that same month at a lunar new year event sponsored by the Canadian Alliance of Chinese Associations, an umbrella organization of dozens of community groups and whose website lists among its activities meetings with the Chinese government’s Overseas Chinese Affairs Office.

Also that month, Tong and Terry Yung, chair of the SUCCESS board, donned red scarves at the 18th anniversary celebration of the Canada-Wenzhou Friendship Society, one of the organizations under the alliance. The society was accused later in the fall of vote-tampering after it sent out social media messages to members encouraging them to vote for certain ethnic-Chinese candidates during municipal elections and offering a $20 transportation allowance. Police later said they found no evidence of wrongdoing.

In March 2018, Tong attended the annual fundraising gala organized by the SUCCESS Foundation, the society’s fundraising arm. She was the only foreign dignitary mentioned in a foundation press release.

In May 2018, Yung, who is a police officer, formed part of an honour guard at the conference of the World Guangdong Community Federation in Vancouver that was attended by Tong, as well as Su Bo, a senior official with the United Front Work Department. B.C. Premier John Horgan and other dignitaries from all levels of government, also attended.

In November 2017, shortly after exiting his role as chair of the SUCCESS Foundation, Sing Lim Yeo joined Chinese consular officials and others at a hotel conference room to discuss ways to resolve the issue of the reunification of mainland China and Taiwan. A video wall in the background was emblazoned with the words: “Overseas Chinese leaders work to unite the motherland in the new era.”

Choo and Yung told the Post that the events cited are a fraction of the countless functions they attend each year, which include events sponsored by Taiwanese, Filipino, Jewish and other cultural groups.

“It’s almost equal opportunity,” Yung said. “I don’t seek out a political group to go and celebrate a cause.”

“As a non-partisan organization, I do not want to exclude anyone in photo opportunities. That does not mean I support or reject their positions/views,” Choo said.

She later added: “If such endeavours create a perception problem, we will be very mindful of (it) in the future.”

Sing Lim Yeo did not respond to a phone message. But Yung said the society can’t prevent ex-board members from expressing their opinions, as long as it’s not on behalf of the society.

Tung Chan, a former SUCCESS CEO, cautioned that it is difficult to ascribe motives to individuals based on the people they are pictured with.

“Those of us who understand the Chinese cultural concept of ‘face’ will know it is almost impossible to turn down an invitation without causing some damage to a relationship,” he said.

On the question of the organization’s silence on Tiananmen, Chan said he didn’t see how that was relevant to the society’s core mission of helping Canadians integrate in a nonpartisan manner.

But Eleanor Yuen, past president of the Vancouver Hong Kong Forum Society who would like to have seen the organization mark the anniversary, says there’s nothing partisan about promoting Canadian values.

“Historical facts remain historical facts and it should not be compromised or dressed up or dressed down as a matter of convenience.”